A New Set of International Relations Shaping up in Asia, Under Belt and Road Initiative

An exciting dynamic is sweeping Asia, with the breakthrough diplomacy on the Korean peninsula being but the most spectacular aspect of it. While just a few months ago, the idea of a summit between the President of the United States and the Chairman of North Korea was still dismissed by most as pie-in-the-sky, a definitive date for a meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has now been set for June 12 in Singapore. This will be the first summit ever between the leaders of those two countries.

During the subsequent negotiations, economic development needs to be as high on the agenda as North Korea’s nuclear program if real progress is to be made. South Korean President Moon reportedly gave Kim a thumb drive, during their historic meeting in the DMZ on April 27, containing a detailed plan for investment throughout the North Korean economy. Russia is open to carrying out projects with North Korea, and so is China. Hopefully, the entire peninsula will soon be fully integrated into the Belt and Road Initiative.

Those issues were clearly on the agenda of the May 8 meeting between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, the first such visit of a Chinese Premier in eight years, which reflects the marked improvement in relations since 2017 after years of growing tensions.

The two leaders were joined the next day by South Korea President Moon Jae-in for a trilateral summit, during which they vowed to expand regional cooperation and work toward ensuring peace on the Korean Peninsula. They also agreed to meet on a regular basis to function as “inseparable trade partners.” This was the first summit of the three East Asian powers since 2015, when the Obama Administration was pressuring Seoul to join its anti-China “Asia pivot”.

Li Keqiang stayed in Japan for further meetings, in which he emphasized the importance of cooperation in innovation and high-end manufacturing, and praised the “hard-won momentum of of improvement in bilateral relations”. Prime Minister Abe stressed that the two countries have now entered an “era of coordination” rather than competition.

Just before heading for Japan, Li Keqiang was in Indonesia on May 7, where he met with President Joko Widodo. China is now the country’s third largest investor in the country after Singapore and Japan, and its leading trade partner.

To be added to the picture in Asia are the improved relations between India and China in spite of certain long-standing disputes. During 2017, bilateral trade rose by an impressive 18.6% to $84.4 billion. Given that these are the world’s two most populous countries, there is room for much greater growth. The Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has already approved funding for $1 bn worth of projects in India, and is reportedly considering some $1 bn more. India is by far the largest recipient of AIIB investment.

Finally, Malaysia will more forcefully join the Belt and Road Initiative following the surprise victory of the coalition headed by former Prime Minister Mahathir, a staunch defender of economic development and national sovereignty, who has not feared to take on international financial institutions.

The key for consolidating the “Asia Century” now, however, remains U.S.-North Korea diplomacy. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement with Iran could have a negative impact on the upcoming negotiations.